The one that’s never discussed

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Cantata 93 Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten from 1724 is one of my favorite Bach cantatas, but because this one always falls in the summer vacation, I have never actually discussed it. I don’t have time to get into it this year either, but I have some interesting links for you.

In July 2017, I shared my favorite recording (Herreweghe) of this cantata along with some pictures of Greece where I was at the time. You can find that post here.

Bach recycled the most splendid movement from this cantata, the soprano-alto duet, into one of his “Schübler Chorales” for organ. How exactly that works, you can read in my post from February 2018.

And if you understand a little German, watch Rudolf Lutz of the J.S. Bach Foundation explain everything about this Cantata 93 in this workshop on YouTube.

Blessings during a crisis

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French Alps at La Clusaz, photo by Luc Barrière.

In an effort to share some more personal thoughts with you, this has become quite a long post. If you prefer not to read it and go straight to the cantatas for this Exaudi Sunday, you can find my post about cantatas 44 and 183 here. It is a story with a wealth of information, gorgeous soprano arias, and recommendations for top-notch recordings. But since there’s always more to learn, I wanted to give some attention to Rudolf Lutz’ English spoken lecture about these cantatas. Find the link at the end of this post.

Over the past several months, while we’ve all been dealing with this global health crisis, I have often felt overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by piles of dishes, by potentially life changing decisions, by not knowing what my role is supposed to be in this crisis, but also by musicians and music organizations. While one is telling me to watch this YouTube video–available this week only!, another invites me to join a lecture on Zoom– please submit your questions ahead of time, yet another is showing me that singing while masked actually sounds pretty good (even though their images scare the * out of me), but wait … there’s a live Facebook Event STARTING NOW!

I understand the reasons behind it. An urge to share music with others, so strong they need to answer it or go insane. A fear of being forgotten by their patrons and thus losing even more income. Creative minds that keep exploring new possibilities. I also understand that there are probably millions of people for whom concert-going was their weekly bread, and that they are all eating this up. But it doesn’t calm me down.

My soul has been soothed much more by the images of sour dough rising, vegetable gardens being planned, blooming gardens, and nature. Two Instagram accounts I have especially enjoyed are those of Les Arts Florissants, who have been posting a wealth of pictures of William Christie’s gardens in France, and of Luc Barrière, a concert photographer who left Paris for the Alps before the strict lockdown happened in France. Yes, I know these are privileged people, and everyone can think of their living situations what they want. To me personally, these two accounts have given me examples of people taking care of themselves and slowing down, and that inspires me and calms me.

William Christie’s garden in Thiré, France, on March 28, 2020. Photo from Les Arts Florissants Facebook page.

Of course stress is not caused by the acts of other people, but by your own reaction to these acts, and fortunately most of the live streams can be watched again at a later time. So I have watched some of them at my own pace (while doing those dishes, folding laundry, or cleaning vegetables) and have realized that amidst the overwhelm there are blessings, because every now and then something new and marvelous emerges that would not have happened without this crisis.

For me, the absolute best example of this has been the series of “one man shows” by Rudolf Lutz, the artistic director of the J.S Bach Foundation in Switzerland. Every month, on the day his choir and orchestra would otherwise have given a concert for an audience, recorded live on video, he has live streamed an excellent and very witty lecture about that same cantata, brilliantly combined with organ improvisations on the music in the cantata, and the meaning behind the cantata. Without the crisis, his international online audience of Bach lovers would never have known what a talented improvisor he is. Without the crisis, he would never have held his lectures in English. (Until now his excellent cantata lectures were only accessible to German speakers, with only a handful of them subtitled in English).

Find Rudolf Lutz’ wonderful lecture/improvisation about Cantata 44 and 183 (from May 19) here. Find my blog post about these same cantatas (highlighting completely different aspects of the pieces!) here.

To learn more about Rudolf Lutz, read his bio here. Find his lecture/improvisation about Cantata 106 (from March 20) here, and about Cantata 4 (from April 17) here.

Rudolf Lutz, artistic director of the J.S. Bach Foundation.

Wieneke Gorter, May 24, 2020.

New roses and new videos

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Several things have changed since I wrote my post about Cantata 86 in May 2017.

I now have my own Westerland rose growing against the front of my house. The abundance of flowers, the range of color, and the glorious scent are daily blessings this time of year. And while in 2017 I still had to piece together my favorite recording of Cantata 86 from some of Gardiner’s and some of Koopman’s, there now is the fabulous live recording of the Netherlands Bach Society on YouTube, published on September 7, 2018. It even has two of my heros in the alto aria: Shunske Sato on violin and Robin Blaze singing countertenor. Other wonderful soloists on this recording: Marion Strijk, soprano; Daniel Johannsen, tenor; and Stephan MacLeod, bass.

Sato and Blaze present a very clear explanation of how Bach illustrates the “breaking” of the roses in the alto aria in this short video. Worth all the four and a half minutes of your time.

For the text and translations of cantata 86, please visit this page, and for the score, please go here.

Wieneke Gorter, May 15, 2020.

Westerland climbing rose on the front of my house, May 2020. The netting is to protect it from the deer that seek shelter in our backyard and try to forage in the front yard.

Good librettists and unusual wind instruments (3rd Sunday after Easter)

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In John 16:20, Jesus announces to his disciples that he is going to leave them, and that they will go through a period of hardship during which the rest of the world will mock them. For this 3rd Sunday after Easter, this is the story on which Bach and his librettists had to base their cantatas.

In 1714 in Weimar, Bach made this into a true lament, that he would later rewrite into the Crucifixus of his Mass in B Minor: Cantata 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.  

The librettist of this cantata (and of all other cantatas Bach wrote in Weimar) was Salomo Franck, librarian to the Duke of Weimar. Franck very cleverly portrays the “sorrow to joy”-theme of this cantata. The alto aria is a good example: after the Gospel quote in the recitative “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal” (we have to go through tribulation) comes an upbeat aria illuminating how “Kreuz und Krone” (cross and crown) and “Kampf and Kleinod” (conflict and jewel) are always connected.

While I love everything about this cantata, my absolute favorite part is the tenor aria Sei getreu. Find out why in my blog post from 2016, where you can also find links to my favorite recordings of this cantata.

Most of the texts Bach had to work with in Leipzig were not nearly as good as Franck’s libretti. But there arguably was one exception: in 1725, between Easter and Pentecost, Bach set nine cantatas in a row to beautiful poetry by Christiane Mariana von Ziegler. Von Ziegler was a single woman who had known much sadness in her life already: her father was in prison, she was twice widowed, and had also lost all her four children. However, her family fortune was still intact and at her disposal, and the sad circumstances meant that she didn’t have to answer to a father or a husband. She thus enjoyed much more freedom than any other woman in Leipzig at the time, and could publish under her own name.

For the third Sunday in 1725, Bach wrote Cantata 103: Ihr werdet weinen und heulen on a libretto by Von Ziegler. This cantata also starts out very sad, but there is much “Freude” (joy) in the music. A sopranino recorder illustrates the “mocking” Jesus predicted, or does it? Read it all in my blog post from 2018, which also includes a link to the excellent introduction to this cantata (now with English subtitles!) by Rudolf Lutz of the J.S. Bach Foundation in Switzerland.

Wieneke Gorter, May 2, 2020.

The Good Shepherd (2nd Sunday after Easter)

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Jesus as “The Good Shepherd,” Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome.
Early Christian fresco, created between the late 2nd and the 4th century. To learn more about the Catacomb of Priscilla, watch this video on Youtube.

While I have been silent on this blog since Palm Sunday this year, of course Bach’s life in Leipzig was far from quiet. In fact, Easter was a time of non-stop work on cantata compositions for him, perhaps even more intense than the Christmas season.*

Today is the second Sunday after Easter, for which Bach wrote Cantata 104 in 1724, and Cantata 85 in 1725, all on the theme of Jesus as “The Good Shepherd.” I have updated the posts I wrote about those cantatas in 2016 and 2017, making sure all the links work, and adding a link to the live performance of Cantata 85 by the J.S. Bach Foundation. If you have some extra time, you can listen to the beautiful sub-group of cantatas Bach wrote after Easter in 1725: BWV 6, 42, and 85. Just follow in the links in my post about Cantata 85.

If you can afford to financially support the artists (especially important now, while they have no income from performances!) please consider purchasing their recordings. I have included links for that too in every post.

Wieneke Gorter, April 26, 2020.

*Before Christmas in Leipzig, he would have the four-week break of Advent, while before Easter he would have been busy rehearsing, rewriting, and performing whichever Passion he performed that year.

Palm Sunday 1714

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We’re on Day 20 of “shelter in place” here in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re counting our blessings, trying to figure out how we can be most helpful to others while also taking good care of ourselves, and trying to wean ourselves off spending too much time on social media. I definitely need my “church” of regular check-ins with family and friends, daily mindfulness exercises, and lots of yoga classes to stay sane through all of this.

Back to Bach’s church. Today is Palm Sunday! Bach never officially wrote a cantata for this Sunday, since no music was to be performed in the churches during Lent. However, in 1714, Palm Sunday fell on the same day as the feast of the Annunciation of Mary, March 25. This way, while specifying “for the feast of the Annunciation of Mary” on the title page of the cantata manuscript, Bach could still write music for Palm Sunday with cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen! (Welcome, King of Heaven!)

If you’re not in the mood for a long story and would just like to listen to a short piece of calming music, I recommend the live performance of the opening sinfonia of this cantata on the YouTube channel of Voices of Music, with two fabulous soloists: Hanneke van Proosdij on recorder and Rachel Podger on violin. You can find that video here.

Many of Bach’s Weimar cantatas start with an elaborate instrumental ouverture or sinfonia.* There are two possible reasons for this. First of all, it was in Weimar that Bach studied lots of French and Italian compositions, and he might have wanted to “show off” that he could also write such a fashionable ouverture. But there might have also been a more practical reason: such an opening movement was the perfect piece of music during which the Duke and his entourage would slowly walk into the chapel and take their seats, and not miss anything of the cantata itself.

For the entire cantata, my all-time favorite still is the recording by Montreal Baroque. Listen here on Spotify, or here on YouTube. Their one-on-a-part performance is similar to how this would have sounded from the small organ loft in Weimar, and features fabulous singing all around (soprano Monika Mauch, countertenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels, bass Harry van der Kamp).

Find the text of cantata 182 here, and the score here.

If you would like to learn more about Bach’s time in Weimar, please visit my post about Bach in Weimar I wrote in 2016. I’ve just updated it with some new photos, including a picture of the organ loft, and it has all the same links for the recording, text, and score as mentioned here.

In Leipzig in 1724, Bach performed this cantata again, on the feast of the Annunciation of Mary, which that year fell eight days before Palm Sunday.

Wieneke Gorter, April 5, 2020.

*(for example cantata 21 Ich hatte viel Bekummernis, 18 Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fälltand 61 Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland)

Trombones and altos from heaven (a guide to BWV 2)

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Ceiling painting installed around 1700 in Christian V’s Hall in Rosenborg Castle, Denmark. Possibly by Reinhold Timm, ca. 1620, originally for for a music pavilion in Kongens Have. *

Yesterday, Wednesday March 25, 2020, the J.S. Bach Foundation published their live video recording of Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Please God, look down from Heaven) on their YouTube channel. I thought it might be nice to provide a listening guide to go with this performance.

I love this cantata because it has trombones in the orchestra, doubling the choir parts, and because the altos have the cantus firmus (=they sing the chorale melody in long notes) in the opening chorus, which sounds incredibly good, and is unique within Bach’s writing.

Find the video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Soloists are Alex Potter, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; and Markus Volpert, bass.

Find the German texts with English translations here, and the full score here.

This cantata was the second in Bach’s 1724 series of Chorale Cantatas. He most probably intended for the first four cantatas in that series to form a set, or at least to present some kind of order,  if you look at the composition form of the opening movement, and which voice has the cantus firmus of the chorale tune in that chorus:

  1. Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: French Overture, with cantus firmus in the soprano (find my blog post about this cantata here)
  2. Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: Chorale motet, cantus firmus in alto (the cantata discussed here)
  3. Cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam: Italian concerto, cantus firmus in tenor. (find my blog post about this cantata here)
  4. Cantata 135 : Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder: Chorale fantasia, cantus firmus in bass. (find my blog post about this cantata here)

We know that Bach liked to use order and symmetry when he wanted to impress other people with a composition. But perhaps he was also thinking of his legacy. When he started composing cantatas at the Weimar court in 1714, albeit on a monthly instead of weekly basis, his first four cantatas formed a similar portfolio of composition styles in the opening choral movements:

  1. Cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen: Choral fugue
  2. Cantata 12 Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen: Passacaglia
  3. Cantata 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!: Concerto
  4. Cantata 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis: Motet.

Back to this Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Please God, look down from Heaven), and what to listen for.

Opening chorus:

The chorale, based on Psalm 12, is by Luther. For an idea what Luther’s original song would have sounded like, you can watch this video. For readers who understand German: Eduard van Hengel’s website (in Dutch) has a very insightful overview of the original German text of Psalm 12, the text of Luther’s chorale, and how Bach’s librettist changed that into the text for the cantata.  You can find it here.

Whenever Bach uses a chorale by Luther in a cantata, he often demonstrates his reverence for the father of his faith by using the archaic form of chorale motet as opening chorus combined with the equally archaic trombone quartet (1 cornetto and 3 trombones) to double the choir parts.

Giving the cantus firmus to the altos is however not something Bach does very often. If only he had! In this case it is especially wonderfully orchestrated, with doubling by one trombone, two oboes, and all second violins. Both on this video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation as well on the Herreweghe audio recording I recommended back in 2017, Alex Potter’s voice significantly enhances this winning blend of alto voices and instruments, and on this J.S. Bach Foundation video recording he also sings the beautiful alto aria. It definitely made my day yesterday.

Alto aria:

Bach alto and tenor arias are at their prettiest, I find, when they are written as a trio sonata, and the alto aria Tilg, o Gott in this cantata is a beautiful example of that. Wonderful singing and playing by alto Alex Potter and violinist Renate Steinmann. The aria is a plea for help in fighting the “Rottengeister,” or the sectarians amidst the Lutherans. When the alto starts singing the word “Rottengeistern,” we realize we had heard this word already many times in the triplets of the violin part. As Eduard van Hengel says, it is the “popular easy talk of the sectarians, and that is also the reason why the other two parts don’t have this motive” [to further illustrate the schism].

Bass recitative:

Definitely keep the text & translations handy for this one, because this movement contains a wealth of text illustrations in the music. On the word Armen  (the poor) sounds a sorrowful diminished seventh, the word seufzend (sighing) has a rest/sigh in the middle of the word, and more such things happening on the words Ach (sighing) and Klagen (complaining). In contrast to this, a few lines later, the chord on the word Gott (God) sounds open and liberating, after which God himself gets to speak, and the music turns to an arioso (similarly to how Bach does that in his much earlier Cantata 18 when God speaks). At the word heller Sonnenschein (bright sunshine) the light gets turned on in the music too: the harmony changes to C Major.

Tenor aria:

Here we have arrived at the solution/salvation part of the cantata, and so this music is more pleasant, easier to listen to. But Bach is still preaching: there are some crossing (!) lines in the music, and in the middle section, which tells the listeners to be patient (sei geduldig) and Bach stresses the words Kreuz und Not.

With many thanks to Eduard van Hengel and Rudolf Lutz for their explanations of this cantata,

Wieneke Gorter, March 26, 2020.

*more information about this painting and the other objects in Christian V’s Hall in Rosenborg Castle can be found here.

Community and Creativity

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My front window, creation by my daughter. It is one of 28 rainbows created in the span of one day on our street in the San Francisco Bay Area, after a neighbor with young children made a request by email in the morning, so they could go on a “rainbow hunt” in the afternoon

Hello dear readers all over the world. I wanted to share a bit more than my quick message of Saturday. All of a sudden most of us are in the same boat: sheltering in place or on full lockdown. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are now on day 7 of “shelter in place”, and starting week 2 of school closures.

While I’m sad, frustrated, and stressed out on a regular basis, I have also felt extremely comforted and very inspired this past week by expressions of beautiful community and wonderful creativity that have come out of this crisis already.

I’ve seen neighborhoods come together to identify who needs help and who can help; I’ve felt how uplifting it can be to share “silver linings” in a private Facebook group; I’ve experienced the power of a Zoom video conference meeting with a group of people who normally gather in person. Even if you can’t physically be in the same room with your classmates, members of your yoga studio, or extended family, it is actually extremely calming for the nervous system to see and hear people you know, and to be there for each other.

In the spirit of community and creativity, I’d love to share the video created by the Malaysia Bach Festival last week: they assembled videos of different people all over the world, singing and playing the chorale “Befiehl du deine Wege” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and combined it into one video. You can find that video here. Keep your tissues handy.

In case you would like to sing along, you can find the PDF of this chorale here.

Wieneke Gorter, March 23, 2020.

Virtual walk through Bach's Leipzig on his 335th Birthday

In honor of Bach’s 335th Birthday today, the Bach Archives in Leipzig created this wonderful online tool. You can do a virtual walk through Bach’s Leipzig. If you happen to have cardboard VR glasses in your house, you can explore Bach’s Leipzig even deeper by using the VR function of your smartphone.

In the coming weeks, whenever I find the time, I’ll be sharing live video performances to watch online, with some extra information whenever I can.

In the meantime, the links from my previous two posts, with a different live performance of the St. John Passion in each, are still available online.

Wieneke Gorter, March 21, 2020.

One more St. John Passion to watch today, available until April 13, 2020

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Pilate washing his hands by Bernhard Strigel, circa 1500. The Walters Museum, Baltimore, USA.

Another St. John Passion to watch today! Available until April 13, 2020: Collegium Vocale Gent’s / Herreweghe’s dress rehearsal of the St. John Passion from Bruges, March 13.

After this rehearsal, their entire St. John tour as well as St. Matthew tour was canceled. For Baroque musicians in Europe, this time of year, with the Bach passions, is when they earn most of their money. The link to the video also includes info on how to donate to Collegium Vocale Gent, who will make sure the money is divided equally over the musicians who are otherwise not getting paid for this long period.

This starts with French text on the website, but rest is in English. https://www.collegiumvocale.com/en/


Julian Prégardien, tenor-evangelist
Krezimir Strazanac, bass-Christ
Dorothee Mields, soprano
Alex Potter, countertenor
Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor
Peter Kooij, bass

Romina Lischka, viola da gamba

Find the German texts with English translations here, and the score, in two parts: part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Again, I urge you to support all musicians suffering enormous loss of income during this difficult time. Donate at least the money you would otherwise have spent on tickets to their performances, but if you can, give more. Take care of each other, please take social distancing seriously, keep going for walks if allowed, check in on your elderly neighbors, and wash. your. hands.

Wieneke Gorter, March 15, 2020, updated March 21, 2020.